Believing stories

It’s hot, and the three men are tired. Two of them are men, anyway. The third is much younger, yet he has seen a harder time than many would in their lifetime. He has just finished telling his story. The others are incredulous. Surely this tale cannot be real.

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[Before I go any further, it’s worth mentioning that this post follows this one from a few days ago. I’ve been thinking about stories and their significance recently, and some of those reflections are making their way into blog posts. These first two are a tad more abstract. The next one, maybe two, will hopefully bring it back to the real world. Basically the point of the first post was that stories are powerful and have real impact on those who engage with them. Stories are an essential tool of making sense of information. Because of this, it helps us make sense of events, history, and our own experiences and identity. The power of stories can be anything from the enthralling tales in Tolkien’s fantasy to didactic myths and fables to singing a story in song. Even a simple metaphor with descriptive language could be seen as use of story to illuminate a more abstract idea (“Reaching new heights like a bird in a spaceship”). Now you’re up to speed – read on!]

Life of Pi is an incredible book, in both senses of the word. The characters and story grab you and don’t let you go until the very last chapter. Further, it doesn’t leave you there: it leaves you with a choice, something to think on. It’s incredible because the story is moving and exciting, with heights and depths that tug and prod at the enthralled reader’s sensibilities.  Yet the masterful writing is not all: the story itself is incredible – it’s essentially implausible. You might say that’s what fiction is for: it brings us into contact with impossible worlds. Perhaps. Fiction is certainly a place where realism and imagination, fantasy and experience come together in a plethora of ways. Yet this story is clearly meant to take place in our world, and to contain normal, authentic people. Indeed, the story is implausible to the two Japanese men who are interviewing Pi at the end of the book.

Let me explain. Spoilers are coming – beware! Pi starts his tale as a young boy, describing his upbringing as the son of a zoo owner in India. The real events start as the family must move to America, taking their zoo with them. The liner on which they travel is hit by a tempest. The ocean claims the ship, but Pi manages to reach a lifeboat. He is not the only one, he recounts. He is joined by some of the zoo animals. Most significant is Richard Parker, the Tiger, whom Pi  – in a moment of confusion – actually helps on to his floating home.

Pi loses track of time quickly, but it is not long before all the animals have killed one another off. The exception is Richard Parker. What follows is a remarkable story of survival. Pi has to survive without all resources save that which he can get along the way. Not the least of his problems is the problem of sharing a boat with a gigantic carnivore. It’s an experience that all but breaks Pi: it’s hopeless. Yet through the hopeless ness and terror, Pi encounters much beauty and wonder. Months later and against all odds, their boat comes up to terra firma. Richard Parker wastes no time: he is past the beach and into the jungle. The reader is left with a feeling of loss. This terrifying threat has become familiar, even comforting. Pi  is found on the beach, and is taken off to recover. It is during this recovery that two Japanese men come to hear his report of the shipping accident. Hearing his account unravel, they are certainly surprised.

Coming to the end of this story, one of the men challenges the veracity of Pi’s story, offering a much simpler and bleaker story: there were no animals on the boat. The animals are Pi’s way of coming to terms with losing both family and the animals he loved – the boat was briefly shared with a few other lucky survivors. Richard Parker was Pi himself: his battle to survive. In the course of a couple of lines, the fascinating and enthralling story is threatened by this unimaginative rendering. Yet it is rescued, leaving the reader also with a huge challenge:

‘So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?’ Mr. Okamoto: ‘That’s an interesting question?’ Mr. Chiba: ‘The story with animals.’ Mr. Okamoto: ‘Yes. The story with animals is the better story.’ Pi Patel: ‘Thank you. And so it goes with God.’

My clumsy summary will not have emulated the feeling you get at the end of Pi’s story. This ending, though, is crafted so well that you really do feel as if you are left with a choice. A choice between the simple, likely, and dull explanation and that much more poetic and intriguing account. They recognise it: the story with the animals is much better.

Yann Martel is certainly driving at a point: Pi’s own pluralistic attitude to God is demonstrated in the way that he holds it possible to be a Christian, Muslim and Buddhist simultaneously. We are left longing for animal story to be the case. Is it really a matter of choosing the better of the two stories?

There are clear pluralistic and postmodern leanings here. Rejection of outright truth claims or metanarrative, and favouring choice over some objective claim are the results of saying that nobody can know truth. And that is what he says: they cannot prove either story, and it makes no factual difference. Though this could give way to a huge apologetic and philosophical tangent, I will only briefly touch on the issue here. In matters of faith, Christianity (and other faith systems) cannot be dismissed as making “no factual difference”. Unless you start with the assumption that none of these systems can actually be true, or you somehow believe that contradictory assertions can somehow both be true, then you cannot say that there is no factual difference. Deciding whether to trust Buddha, Jesus or Mohammed, for example, may have real consequences. Granted, mathematical or scientific proofs cannot be offered for any of these systems, but to insist upon them is to misunderstand the nature of their claims and the process of historical knowledge.

[Note: my first draft took a turn at this point and quickly became about mathematics. It was tangential and probably very ill-informed, so I’ve contained myself for now. That might come out another time. Maybe.]

Leaving these factors behind, this book is a great example of the way that a good story is powerful and enthralling. I do not agree with the philosophy it espouses, but it is a great story. I would suggest that this example shows that we need to be careful with stories. We need to be careful with the way that they influence us. This idea of choosing the better story – that which you prefer – feels right, at the end of Pi’s tale. You want his story to be true. Similarly, I have often felt that less scientifically advanced civilisation benefitted from something that we no longer have: belief in the fantastical. I sometimes wish that I could read a fantasy book and believe that it were true – that once upon a time there were such creatures and characters. That the world was a more magical place. There’s something similar with children: their imaginative capacity, unlimited by the scientific and social norms that they are yet to learn, is something that people often say they cherish. One doesn’t have to look too far online to find ways that the creativity of a child has been employed. As G K Chesterton said,

“Fairytales don’t tell children that dragons exist; children already know that dragons exist. Fairytales tell children that dragons can be killed.”

So what? I disagree with Life of Pi, but sometimes wish that I could believe in that which is fantastical.

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The thing is, when a story allows us to choose what to believe, there is a danger that we will come away with something false. If we accept that stories do have a real impact on us and our worldview, then this is dangerous. It would be easy to read Life of Pi and come away thinking that theological distinction does not matter, and the way you relate to it is more important.

What you come away with is not always so obvious. You may not know the way in which a story has shaped you.

What, then, should we do? Do we boycott all fiction? Do we refuse to engage with all stories, nay, all art and expression, which challenges or rejects our worldview? No. We just need to understand. This is not a low view of stories, but a higher one. We can engage deeply, and seek to understand what is true and noble and good in these stories. Perhaps the way that they enchant and move us will reveal to us more about ourselves. At the risk of alienating other readers, I think that Christians in particular can gain from investing in stories. When you are moved by a tale, or you experience that longing for something to be true, perhaps you will understand your heart better. I for one have had the experience of being rebuked by my love for a story: when I read of a tragic romance in which a lover prefers to face doom with the beloved than eternal joy without, I am forced to consider whether I do love and value the truth: God’s holiness, common grace, judgement and so on.

Every time a story grabs and enthrals you, I think it can teach you. What is it that caught your attention? How did it hold you? What claim is it making or challenging? Does it agree with your worldview or challenge it? What do you wish was true? What resonates with you?

These questions are not mere theory, though. They will tell you about the way that you work, what you believe, what areas your heart may not align with your intellectual assertions. The story might help you to understand our world by comparison or analogy, it might help you identify something that you should pursue or flee.

Nonetheless, the bottom line is truth. I can love the story of Pi. Even though something in me longs for Richard Parker to have really been there, I can reject the pluralism it stands for. It teaches me that I need to be careful to choose truth over that which merely appeals to me as a better story. And in that way, the story has not only enthralled me, but taught me something as well. It tells me something about me, something about Yann Martel, something about the world, and forces me to consider what it might mean to stand for truth when claims to objective truth are challenged.

By now, it feels like I am repeating myself. This post was meant to cover a lot more ground, but I shall merely extend this series. In the next post, I hope to get a little more concrete. If all goes to plan there will be two more, around the importance of stories knowing God.

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